Labor Theory of King of the Hill

– Claire Blechman

Who is Hank Hill? You don’t have to ask; he’ll tell you, with pride: Assistant Manager, Strickland Propane. He sells propane and propane accessories. Lady propane has been good to him.

Has there ever been a better example of the perfect worker than Hank Rutherford Hill? Excessively competent, inexplicably dedicated, and willing to go to great lengths to protect the system that exploits him for his labor, Hank is a capitalist’s dream.

King of the Hill (KOTH) is not a politically radical show. Even in the episode featuring the 2000 election (S05E01), in which Hank has a crisis of faith as to whether he can vote for W. Bush, and Luanne flirts with communism, the explicit message is a basic “vote: it’s your civic duty.” Although the show ran from 1997–2010, neither 9/11 nor the Obama administration happened here, and Arlen remained in simpler, Clintonian times. KOTH is not politically radical, but it is a show about the working class, and no show about the working class can avoid conflicts that arise from the deplorable conditions for workers in this country. Over the course of 13 seasons, KOTH portrays many labor actions: strikes, stoppages, scabbing, protests, and even corporate sabotage. The overt message of these episodes is never revolutionary, but a TV show doesn’t have to have revolutionary character to hold great lessons for those of us seeking to raise class consciousness. Hank’s relationship to his hedonistic boss, Buck Strickland, is rich material for uncovering and understanding the dynamics between the working class and the capitalists that run our businesses (and our lives).

When we say Hank is a capitalist’s dream, the specific capitalist living that dream is Buck Strickland, owner of Strickland Propane. Buck “discovered” Hank Hill when he was a young high school graduate selling Jordache at Jeans West. He correctly recognized Hank as his “golden goose,” and brought him into the “Strickland family,” to sell propane and propane accessories. Because of this, Hank looks to Buck as a mentor and a surrogate father figure. Buck, on the other hand, exploits Hank for all the surplus value he can squeeze out of him over the next 15 years.

All capitalist bosses exploit their workers and extract value from their labor to make their profits, but Buck takes this parasitic relationship to extremes. It is a running joke that Buck contributes nothing to the business, steals from the safe and the coffee fund, and skips town the second he might have to take any responsibility (sometimes literally bailing out the window). In the episode where Buck gets banned from his favorite strip club (Jugstore Cowboys), Hank tries to convince him to come back to work at Strickland Propane, but Buck makes his position clear:

BUCK: I hate work, Hank! It’s so god-awful boring. How you don’t kill yourself is beyond me. (S10E12)

No matter how big a mess Buck makes—philandering, gambling, even colluding on an illegal price fixing cartel—Hank is always there to clean it up. On top of Hank’s regular work managing the entire business, Buck has Hank bail him out of jail on multiple occasions, complete his community service for him, and otherwise do all his dirty work. All of this he demands of Hank without so much as a “please,” and certainly never a raise. On more than one occasion Buck loses Hank at the poker table, gambling him away like so many chips. Hank’s labor power is a commodity that his employer controls, and that Buck trades in to pay his debts.

Despite Buck’s exploitation and even outright abuse, Hank is pathologically loyal to the company that defines him. It takes a series of significant betrayals for Hank to question that loyalty.

Hospitalized with the first of many “infarctions,” Buck passes over his most effective and loyal worker (Hank) to put the toady B-school graduate Lloyd Vickers in charge of the business (S02E12). Hank, by contrast, is assigned to feed Strickland’s hounds, and while at Buck’s mansion, he finds out that the man he idolizes doesn’t even cook on a gas stove.

HANK: How could you, sir? …you’ve always said that propane is God’s gas. It’s a higher calling.

BUCK: Aww hell Hank, it’s just a business! It’s about makin’ as much money as you can while you can. (S02E12)

Buck has no illusions that there is anything noble about running a business, and no compunctions about throwing his best worker under the bus in the hopes of earning higher profits (a decision he will regret in this one instance, but only briefly). Hank is loyal to his boss, but this is a tragic, misplaced loyalty that is never reciprocated. It’s a form of dramatic irony that we in the audience know Buck is a terrible boss, even if Hank will not admit it. This is a relatable characterization of Hank. It is often easier to recognize poor treatment of others rather than confront our own exploitation.

Buck puts Vickers in charge because he thinks his “fancy business school degree” might earn him more money (10 cents a gallon in fact). Hank would never consider Peak Demand Pricing because that’s “sticking it to people when they need us most” (S02E12), but to a capitalist like Vickers, the market demands they extract as much profit as they can—from both the employees and the customers. Buck agrees to put the tattler boxes in the trucks (to track drivers’ routes and cut down on unscheduled stops) for the same reason. This is the last straw for Hank.

HANK: Mister Strickland, I never thought I’d say this but…I’m not coming in tomorrow

BUCK: You quittin’, or are you taking a personal day?

HANK: You heard me! (S02E12)

For the first (and arguably last) time, Hank has finally seen through the layers of bullshit Buck uses to placate him into accepting all of this poor treatment. He goes to the lake to reflect on what it all means, but Hank is not a man who is equipped to emerge from his retreat with new philosophy of life. Because he doesn’t know how to relate to the world other than through his identity as a worker, what he ends up doing is searching for some more “authentic” work to structure his life around. He settles on being the manager of a “Mom and Pop” general store.

HANK: Peggy! Pack up the car, I’ve figured it all out. It’s not about tattler boxes or who’s in charge. It’s about service with a smile and makin’ people happy. […] Everything I thought I’d find in propane, it isn’t there. It’s in the general store, where they put people before pennies. (S02E12)

The problem is there is no aspect of the capitalist system that puts “people before pennies.” It is, as Buck said, “about making as much money as you can, while you can.” We know that Hank’s sentimental vision of the general store is also a lie. After Hank leaves the store that inspired his epiphany, “Ma” berates “Pa”:

PA: Twenty’s close enough. we don’t care about a buck here or there. People before pennies I always say

HANK: Well thank you friend; you’re good people

[HANK leaves]

MA: We don’t care about a buck here or there? Now I know why they call you Pa. Because you’re PA-thetic

PA: And I know why they call you Ma! Because you’re always riding MAH ASS. (S02E12)

“People before pennies” is a line Hank can embrace in his search for meaning in his work. But it’s a complete illusion. You cannot run a business this way, and you definitely can’t run it the way Hank envisions running his general store:

HANK: A fella’s got no money, he can’t pay his bill? Well that’s good enough for us. And then that fella will tell another fella, and before you know it we’ll have customers lined up around the block. (S02E12)

Meanwhile, back at Strickland, the drivers have all quit, Buck has fired Vickers (after unleashing a torrent of creatively TV-appropriate swearing), and customers have left dozens of messages on Hank’s voicemail asking when their propane will be delivered. Without the drivers’ labor, Strickland can’t run his business. Without Hank and his leadership, Strickland had no hope of keeping the drivers on the job.

This “Snow Job” episode (S02E12) is an outlier, in that Hank pushes back against Buck’s exploitation. Normally, Buck can count on Hank, and more passively the rest of his staff, to acquiesce to his meetings in the men’s room, his stealing from the safe to go to the strip club, his affair with employee Debbie Grund, and all the humiliating schemes he makes them work through.

Buck at one point holds the entire staff of Strickland Propane hostage at the office overnight to indulge him in playing board games, and tortures them by making anyone who voices any protest wear a wet blanket (S10E12). If a private individual did this to a random group of strangers he would be a criminal, but because a boss is doing it to his workers, Hank and the rest of the employees at Strickland Propane are acculturated to accept Buck’s egregious demands.

JOE JACK: I won’t wear the blanket again, honey. I swear I won’t.

HANK: I hate it, too, but you can’t argue with Mr. Strickland. Not when business is up. (S10E12)

Under capitalism, a lot of abuse is totally excusable (or even unassailable) so long as “business is up.” In order to keep business on the up, capitalists have to keep making increasing demands on their workers.

The only question is how much their can increase those demands, and for how long, before the workers revolt. Joe Jack might have followed through on his desire to “throw a blanket over his [Buck’s] head and do what feels right,” had Hank not intervened (S10E12).

Not all bosses are alike, and by lack of skill or circumstances, not all of them succeed at striking the delicate balance between labor exploiting and loyalty inspiring. Hank’s neighbor, Kahn Souphanousinphone, usually a white collar “systems analyst,” gets to try his hand at being the boss in “The Year of Washing Dangerously” episode (S10E09). It does not go well.

When Buck farms out Hank as day labor to Kahn’s car wash scheme1, Kahn (a petit-bourgeoisie striver to the core) abuses and humiliates Hank beyond his limits. What’s more, he exploits the customers, jacking up the prices and cheating them on spray time. As we learned from the Snow Job episode (S02E12), if there’s one thing Hank can’t abide, it’s screwing over customers. Kahn then accuses Hank of stealing:

KAHN: You trying to steal from me? Empty your pockets!
HANK: I’m not going to empty my pockets.

KAHN: Something to hide, huh?
HANK: Kahn, get away from me.

KAHN: Ah! A quarter! I knew it. Thief!
HANK: That is my personal quarter. I brought it from home. (S10E09)

For Hank, this is an embarrassing and intolerable questioning of his integrity. For the rest of us, we can see the absurdity of a boss like Kahn accusing a man like Hank Hill of “stealing” a measly quarter. Kahn thinks as the owner he is entitled to every quarter he can wring out of Hank and Scrubby’s, but that’s the capitalism talking. We know that Labor is entitled to all it creates.

When Hank inevitably quits, Buck takes Kahn aside and, exasperated, explains the scheme to him. Buck, like all successful capitalists, knows from where his wealth derives in this system. “I got my own little success secret,” he says. “A business thrives on customer relations and back-breaking hard work. And that’s the guy that gives it to you. Hank is the golden goose.” (S10E09)

Kahn’s failure here was not that he exploited Hank, or even that he exploited him too much. In context, the work Buck makes Hank do, and the humiliations he makes him suffer, are manifold. Buck regularly makes his employees take meetings in the restroom while he sits on the toilet. He makes Hank skip date night with his wife to go kill the Emus on his failed Emu farm, because they were no longer profitable. Most egregiously, Buck tries to frame Hank for murder (S04E14).

For 15 years Hank puts up with Buck’s bullshit, only flirting with quitting in the most egregious of circumstances and never following through, but he only lasts two days with Kahn. Why does Hank know his worth and the power of withholding his labor in this case, but not in any other?

The difference between Kahn’s clumsy petit-bourgeois exploitation and Buck’s professional capitalist version is that Kahn rubbed it in. He couldn’t help but laugh in Hank’s face and proclaim him a monkey. Insecure with his position as a member of the managerial class, Kahn reasserts his dominance over Hank at every opportunity. Buck, by contrast, named Hank employee of the month for 14 years running, and constantly reminds his staff that Strickland Propane is a “family”2. This helps maintain the illusion that the boss has a vested interest in his workers as people instead of just as commodities from which he can extract more and more labor, and thus more and more profit.

There’s an intersectional component to this too, that Kahn is a Laotian immigrant and Buck is a white man. It’s clear that, as a character trait, Kahn Soupanusinphone strives to achieve the bourgeois lifestyle he perceives as the American dream—personified in Ted Wasonasong (country club membership, giant house with a pool in a gated community, consumer luxury goods). He’s taken in by the get rich quick schemes of Asian telemarketer Doctor Money, but Kahn will never achieve the promise of the American bourgeoisie. Try as he might, he will never be admitted to the club—neither Nine Rivers Country Club nor the capitalist class3.

Hank, meanwhile, doesn’t see anything wrong with a social order in which he is the property of a white man like Buck Strickland, but cannot abide his neighbor Kahn in the same position.

HANK: I left Jeans West to work for one of the most admired men in Arlen business: Buck Strickland. Not a lazy idiot who doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing. (S10E09)

Throughout the series, it’s implied that Buck was once a formidable businessman, but considering we rarely see Buck do anything even approaching business acumen (with the notable exception of hiring Hank),it’s more likely that’s a myth that Hank tells to justify his current cognitive dissonance. “Lazy idiot” describes Buck perhaps even better than it does Kahn but Hank steadfastly ignores any such comparisons.

“I know the secret to success: hard work,” Hank lectures Kahn (S10E09). This is at once trite received knowledge and extreme naivete.

Hank fetishizes hard work for its own sake, an attitude that he certainly did not get from either of his parents. He tries to impart this lesson to his son Bobby on many occasions, but the depth of his work ethic is so ludicrous it always comes off as a joke. For example, when Bobby becomes the towel manager of the football team and is assigned to clean every jockstrap after a game, Hank says:

HANK: Looks like you’ve got some hard work ahead of you. Enjoy it because you’ve earned it. (S07E06)

Like Hank, many people in the real world come to the conclusion that hard work is the answer to every problem. This is deliberately instilled in us through a lifetime of capitalist ideology that permeates every aspect of our existence. The promise goes like this: work hard, and you will succeed. The corollary is if you don’t succeed, you’re not working hard enough.

Of course the Bucks of the world want the Hanks to work harder, in all circumstances. The more labor Hank puts in—to the car wash or to the propane dealership—the more profit the boss can extract from his labor.

One of the reasons that Hank remains loyal to his boss despite it all is that, far from feeling exploited when he has to go the extra mile, Hank takes pride in the fact that he works hard. But for what? The reward for all this hard work can’t be more money, or less work (both of which cut into the boss’s profit), so it becomes either a bromide like “satisfaction in a job well done,” or a passive sense of superiority over those who have less capacity or willingness to work. There is no better motivator than a strong moral compass, even if it points you in the wrong direction.

It’s a running gag over the ten seasons of King of the Hill that Hank doesn’t take any time off, and doesn’t know what to do with himself when he is forced to take a break from work. Work is not just a paycheck to Hank, it’s his identity. Even in situations that have nothing to do with work, he introduces himself as “Hank Hill, Assistant Manager, Strickland Propane.”

Hank’s identity as a worker is sewn up so tight that when he injures his back so badly that he can’t even stand up straight, the idea of taking worker’s comp is anathema to him (S08E20).

DOCTOR: Just have your office send over your workers’ compensation forms and I’ll sign off on them

HANK: Workers’ comp? Do I look like a hobo to you? No sir, I’m not going on welfare. (S08E20)

Even when Buck gives him the go-ahead to take time off, Hank’s work ethic supersedes his misplaced loyalty in his boss.

BUCK: Slow down old top! If you go on workers’ comp I can have Joe Jack’s cousin fill in for you for half the pay. And still have some left to buy my new lady some studio time.

HANK: Mister Strickland, as long as I’m breathing, I’m going to do my job. (S08E20)

Hank’s productive power is formidable, and capitalist ideology has taught him that he had better maintain that quality (and thus his value), or else what use is he? To admit that he can’t work, or needs accommodation, even for a 100% legitimate reason, is a blow to his self-concept.

When he is assigned to feed Strickland’s hounds in the Snow Job episode, Hank faces one more humiliation, from the new boss Vickers.

HANK: He had the nerve to give me flex time! That’s what they give pregnant women and other disableds. (S02E12)

Under capitalism, those whose productive power is diminished beyond what is useful for a capitalist to extract from their labor are considered “disabled”. That pregnant women are included in this inferior group is no accident—even though the labor they are doing is the most productive of the entire human race. The gender politics of work in KOTH are too vast to get into here, but suffice to say, Hank rails at the idea of being thought of as womanly in any way in part because his concept of masculinity is to be a worker with enormous capacity.

Hank can toil as hard as he wants, for as long as he wants without end (“Breaks are for guys on disability” Bobby parrots in S08E08), but in the end he’ll be right back where he started, and all he will have achieved is making the capitalist who owns his labor power richer.

If hard work guaranteed success, Hank would be manager of Strickland Propane, instead of assistant manager. Without the interference and sabotage from Buck, Hank could run Strickland Propane in his sleep. He could decide he has had enough of working for a boss like Buck, go out on his own (like M. F. Thatherton did)4, and run every other propane concern out of town5. The only advantage Buck has in this situation is that he owns the means of production. But under capitalism, that is the crucial advantage, and the difference between the bosses and the working class, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

“The place runs itself,” Buck says of the restaurant he owns (Sugarfoot’s). “The help makes the barbeque, I make the money” (S04E13). This is a particularly succinct statement of how wage labor works under capitalism. All of Buck’s wealth is created by the hard work of his employees, Hank especially.

Considering all this—that Buck brings nothing to the table, and is open about how he opportunistically extracts wealth from his workers and customers alike while trying to avoid any semblance of actual work—it might seem puzzling that Hank doesn’t push back, given his strong conviction in the morality of hard work. Instead, Hank actively works to prop up Buck’s authority, in increasingly hilarious ways. Whether he’s being Buck’s character witness or breaking the drivers’ strike, Hank consistently insulates his boss from the consequences of his actions.

You don’t have to be the beneficiary of the capitalist system to work to uphold it. Many people who do not directly benefit from capitalism are the most loyal enablers of the system. Some because they believe (like Kahn) that the capitalists will someday admit them to their club. Some because they imagine they are in a zero-sum game, pitted against their fellow workers for scraps. Hank does it because he has constructed an identity around work, and because he desperately wants Buck to be his surrogate father (in the next installment we’ll cover how capitalists exploit the family dynamic to maintain control over workers, and how Hank is particularly susceptible to this as the product of an abusive home).

In the same episode where Buck humiliates Hank by assigning him to feed his hounds, Hank bails Buck out of hot water yet again. The drivers’ strike threatens to put Arlen out of propane during the cold snap, and Buck out of business. The drivers know their power, in part because they have class C licenses to transport hazardous materials, but also because, as we find out earlier in the episode, they have a union. They want the tattler boxes out of their trucks, so they withhold the most valuable thing they can give to Strickland: their labor.

This is a sound strategy, but like all labor actions, they were vulnerable to scabs and class traitors. Hank breaks the drivers’ strike by hooking up the bobtails to tow trucks, so that they can deliver propane without needing the labor of drivers with class-C licenses. He does this even though he agrees with the workers’ demands, and knows this problem is entirely the work of his nemesis Lloyd Vickers (S02E12).

Towing the bobtails is presented as a can-do solution to a crisis which gets the people of Arlen their propane in a rare snowy cold snap, but the real solution would be to remove the tattler boxes and invite the licensed drivers to come back to work. By caving on his stand against Buck’s harsh treatment (and worse, by scabbing against his fellow workers) Hank loses any chance he had to make gains for a better workplace. He is only setting himself up for another 15 years of wage slavery and exploitation.

The bobtail incident is not the only time Hank scabs while workers are on strike. In the episode “A Fire-fighting We Will Go” (S03E10), Hank and the gang knowingly cross a picket line in order to live out their childhood fantasy of being volunteer firefighters. They are not paid for this labor, but no one seems to care so long as they can drive around in the fire truck and posture about their new “occupation.”

The episode itself is critical of Hank’s choice to cross the picket line, reminding us of the paid workers that they are displacing, and making it extremely clear that their scab labor is disastrously incompetent. They burn down the entire firehouse, in fact. But none of this matters to Hank.

HANK: They’re striking? Well sir, fires don’t go on strike, I tell you hwat (S03E10).

When there’s work to be done, Hank is there to do it. He feels no remorse for any of his scabbing. Hank works hard, uncritically, because he has been indoctrinated not to think about who his hard work is serving—or hurting. For many people, capitalism is an uncritical good, and for Hank it is inextricably linked to being an American (nationalism is another way ideology solidifies the ruling class’s power over workers’ labor).

HANK: This is wrong, Mister Strickland. You’re the greatest American I know. If anyone can fix this, you can. (S12E11)

Hank is an extremely loyal person: to his country, to his friends and family, and to his boss. He cares deeply about his customers, and (foolishly) about the propane business that he has built his identity around. But he doesn’t have the sense of solidarity with other workers that is so crucial for building the labor movement. Without class consciousness, Hank will always put the interests of capitalists above his fellow workers. He will work like a dog to maintain the status quo that he knows and loves, because Hank is above all a man who plays by the rules. In America, the rule is capitalism over all.

At the end bumper of S05E01, the 2000 election episode, Hank and Bobby break the fourth wall and make a public service announcement that viewers should register to vote. “You’ll be eligible to win these valuable prizes,” Hank says: “Freedom. Civic Pride. And a brand-new President.”

If Hank had a smidgen of class consciousness, he might consider “freedom” the freedom to tell his drunk, debaucherous boss Buck Strickland where to shove it. He might finally recognize the ways Buck exploits him and extracts value from his labor beyond any returns Hank could ever imagine. He might even recognize his own power to join in solidarity with his fellow workers.

Hank Hill will never do any of these things. Not just because he’s a TV character, but because he is the consummate worker. Unlike Kahn, who futilely seeks to join the bourgeoisie, Hank is content to work hard every day at the propanerie, never rock the boat, and remain Assistant Manager forever.

The Woodstock Conservatism of Lana Del Rey

By Kumars Salehi

In January, pop star Lorde responded to pressure from advocates for Palestine by canceling a scheduled concert in Tel Aviv, prompting outrage (including an Israeli lawsuit against activists in her native New Zealand). Lorde joined a growing list of music artists — from Elvis Costello and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters to Lauryn Hill and Talib Kweli — who have refused to violate the cultural boycott of Israel demanded by the international movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).

On September 9, Lana Del Rey is scheduled to perform in Israel for the first time at Tel Aviv’s Meteor Festival, and it is regrettably unlikely she’ll join that list. The list of headliners, meanwhile, also includes Pusha T, the former Clipse rapper and president of Kanye West’s GOOD Music label, who has already demonstrated his willingness to compartmentalize politics for the sake of professional relationships when he distanced himself from the substance (if it can be called that) of Kanye’s recent statements about Trump and slavery.

Like Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Lana has responded to pressure to cancel by pro-BDS fans and other activists by doubling down. First she tweeted a twopart statement of rationalization, “I understand your concern I really get do [sic]. What I can tell you is I believe music is universal and should be used to bring us together. We signed on to the show w the intention that it be performed for the kids there and my plan was for it to be done w a loving energy w a thematic emphasis on peace. If you don’t agree with it I get it. I see both sides.”

This isn’t the first time Lana has faced calls to boycott Israel, but it’s the first time she’s felt compelled to respond. In 2014, during the Israeli Defence Force’s month-long massacre in Gaza dubbed “Operation Protective Edge,” her scheduled show in Tel Aviv was postponed indefinitely, ostensibly for safety reasons. Ticket holders were told their tickets would be honored, but nothing further came of it — until now.

A second statement, posted to Instagram, finds Lana in a defiant mood: “My views on democracy and oppression are aligned with most liberal views,” she writes, “I just wanted to let you know when I’m in Israel I will be visiting Palestine too and I look forward to meeting both Palestinian and Israeli children and playing music for everyone.” She even refers to Waters’s direct appeal to her with a revealing bit of misinterpretation that is, if not callous, then sincere in its ignorance: “Also Roger Waters, I read your statement about taking action even when you believe in neutrality, I totally understand what you’re saying and this is my action.”

I take Lana at her word when, instead of taking action despite her supposed ideological neutrality, she serves up a steaming side of wacky spiritualism: “But could a person as good intentioned as I,” she replied to a fan account on Twitter, “not perhaps with my presence bring attention to the fact that something should change and that a singer with a loving energy can help shift the energetic vibration of a location for the higher good even if it’s just for a minute?”

The new-age sentimentality of Lana’s anti-boycott statement is consistent with her trajectory as a nominally apolitical musician. In 2014 she responded to criticism of her artistic embrace of traditional gender norms and a passive, subservient femininity by declaring that “the issue of feminism is just not an interesting concept. I’m more interested in, you know, SpaceX and Tesla, what’s going to happen with our intergalactic possibilities. Whenever people bring up feminism, I’m like, god. I’m just not really that interested.”

Her music has only recently started to feel the pull of U.S. pop culture’s now explicitly political center of gravity. Beyond the sultry vocals, gorgeous hooks, and the sonic melange of orchestral pop and hip-hop production that accompanies them, the thematic appeal of her music is a brutally romanticized negativity. This negativity isn’t a superficial “negative energy” that can be dispelled with positive thinking, as Lana’s spiritualism might explain it, but the gaping lack of being pulsating with loneliness and frustration in the core of her being. It’s the feeling of lack that pushes us away from a waking life in which we have no power and towards a fantasy in which we never needed it.

Lana’s is a self-absorbed interiority that drowns its anguish by immersing itself in the nationalistic and patriarchal tropes of the American imaginary, even making it her signature to perform and pose for pictures with an American flag in the background. Only with Trump in office did the flag start to represent something more sinister than romantic for Lana, as she told Pitchfork in a 2017 interview:

It’s certainly uncomfortable. I definitely changed my visuals on my tour videos. I’m not going to have the American flag waving while I’m singing “Born to Die.” It’s not going to happen. I’d rather have static. It’s a transitional period, and I’m super aware of that. I think it would be inappropriate to be in France with an American flag. It would feel weird to me now—it didn’t feel weird in 2013.

Trump has even moved Lana to political action, prompting her participation in the mass hexing of the president. Yet it may not be obvious from this newfound political engagement why Lana Del Rey in particular is unlikely to be moved on the issue of the cultural boycott of Israel, which is styled after the cultural component of the boycott that in the ‘80s led American stars like Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Run DMC, and Bruce Springsteen to boycott the Sun City luxury resort — apartheid South Africa’s equivalent of a concert in Tel Aviv.

If you asked Lana about her political views, based on her reference to her “liberal views” on “democracy and oppression,” it sounds like she would tell you she’s a liberal. And yet, perhaps not atypically for white Americans who describe themselves this way, but certainly more spectacularly, Lana’s work and image are even now shot through with the reactionary implications of her preferred tropes.

. . .

Born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant to a millionaire internet entrepreneur in Lake Placid, New York, Lana Del Rey graduated with what she describes as a “degree in metaphysics” as a philosophy undergraduate at Fordham University. Metaphysics, the arcane-sounding subfield of philosophy concerned broadly with the nature of being, may partly explain the ethereal clichés Lana calls upon to deflect criticism of her politics, but her appeals to the power of an abstract universal love ring hollow.

The thematic gaze of her work is turned inwards, towards almost exclusively romantic feelings and interactions, the drive towards self-destructive hedonism, away from the problems of the world: the interior monologue of a modern subject caught in a vicious cycle between a frustrated but unending search for pleasure and the death drive, the aggressive and indeed self-destructive instinct that Sigmund Freud posited as the countervailing force to our erotic, social inclinations towards gratification and acceptance.

The death drive is the unconscious impulse of our tortured, riven psyche to return to inertia. As Freud points out in his 1932 letter in reply to Albert Einstein, who had consulted him on the topic of war on behalf of the League of Nations:

The death instinct becomes an impulse to destruction when, with the aid of certain organs, it directs its action outward, against external objects. The living being, that is to say, defends its own existence by destroying foreign bodies. But, in one of its activities, the death instinct is operative within the living being and we have sought to trace back a number of normal and pathological phenomena to this introversion of the destructive instinct.

That our will to live is opposed by a will to nothingness is clear for Freud when we act out aggression against ourselves and others even against our own apparent interests. Lana’s death drive, with the rare exception that finds her shooting down paparazzi helicopters, is very introverted.

“I wish I was dead already,” Lana once told The Guardian, prompting Kurt Cobain’s daughter Frances Bean Cobain to publicly reprimand her, tweeting that “the death of young musicians is nothing to romanticize.” Lana clarified only that the discussion of her suicidal thoughts was unrelated to her music idols, blaming her interviewer for “hiding sinister ambitions and angles,” but it’s clear that for Lana the tropes of romantic self-destruction and self-objectification are the bedrock of her thematic engagement with the world. Even on her first (now scrubbed from the internet after a rebrand) studio album, Lizzy Grant AKA Lana Del Ray [sic], an uncritical fixation on abusive and asymmetrical relationships with clear references only to landmarks of American culture should be familiar to fans of her later, revamped persona: “Come on, you know you like little girls / You can be my daddy,” she sings on “Put Me in a Movie.”

Developed to staggering effect on her next two studio albums, 2012’s Born to Die and 2014’s Ultraviolence, as well as in the highlights from her 2015 album Honeymoon, Lana’s brand of Americana pulsates with death drive, rushing headlong into the dark night of the soul. Sexualized fantasies of domestic abuse and toxic relationships (“Video Games,” “Sad Girl,” “Pretty When You Cry”), suicidal thoughts laden with references to tragic celebrity deaths and Los Angeles landmarks (“Born To Die,” “Summertime Sadness,” “Heroin”), ambiguously tongue-in-cheek manifestos for the gold-digging femme fatale (“Off To The Races,” “Fucked My Way Up To The Top,” “This Is What Makes Us Girls”), odes to drugs dripping with listless disdain (“Cruel World,” “Florida Kilos,” “High By The Beach”) are all set to haunting minor-key melodies that make a retreat into the nostalgic dream of 1950s and ‘60s Hollywood aesthetics sound like the answer to our suppressed, primordial drives.

Her strongest work to date assembles and presents these themes in a way that’s both ominously distanced and wistfully earnest, like an airbrushed David Lynch vision of America — the first two thirds of “Mulholland Drive,” the nightmare lingering just below the surface of the nostalgic desire for a lost past. The eroticized motif of the patriotic patriarch, the father figure who guarantees meaning and pleasure in national and gender identity, promises to make things right — but only as long as Lana conforms to the impossible shape of the girl of her man’s dreams, makes herself the object of a distinctly American male gaze.

This motif shows up throughout Lana’s oeuvre from “American” on the follow-up to Born to Die, the Paradise EP, to “Lolita,” the Born to Die cut that betrays at best a misreading of the Nabokov novel, to “Ultraviolence,” which finds Lana pining after an abusive lover: “Jim raised me up, he hurt me but it felt like true love / Jim taught me that, loving him was never enough.” Lana says she no longer performs the most controversial lyric in that song (“He hit me and it felt like a kiss”): “I sing ‘Ultraviolence’ but I don’t sing that line anymore.”

An equally iconic song from the Paradise EP has also become untenable for Lana, so much so that she has stopped performing it entirely. Lana explains that the single “Cola” was partly inspired by Harvey Weinstein, which makes sense when you hear the lyrics:

My pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola

My eyes are wide like cherry pies
I got sweet taste for men who’re older

It’s always been so it’s no surprise
Harvey’s in the sky with diamonds and it’s making me crazy
All he wants to do is party with his pretty baby

“When I wrote that song, I suppose I had a Harvey Weinstein/Harry Winston-type of character in mind,” she told MTV a month after the first of the Weinstein revelations had broken. “I envisioned, like, a benevolent, diamond-bestowing-upon-starlets visual, like a Citizen Kane or something. I’m not really sure. I thought it was funny at the time, and I obviously find it really sad now.”

Trump and Weinstein can force her to rethink some of her aesthetic choices, to describe censoring her setlist as “the only right thing to do.” But Lana doesn’t consider that it’s not just the big-name associations that reflect poorly on the underlying worldview behind the hypersexualized, reactionary dreamscape she evokes. The second verse of “Cola” starts, “I fall asleep with an American flag, I wear my diamonds on skid row / I pledge allegiance to my dad, for teaching me everything he knows.”

. . .

Maybe now the American flag is gone too, but it hasn’t been replaced with a sense of political responsibility so much as a fear of seeming impolitic. Her most recent album, Lust for Life, announces Lana’s arrival in a wax museum of the late-60s counterculture, in some instances trading reactionary, solipsistic despair for a vague liberal concern. The more upbeat, almost triumphal melodies and numerous ham-fisted stabs at social commentary confirm our image of a revisionist Lana, no longer willing to sneer and give the finger to the idea of social responsibility, nor to present her music exclusively through the filter of her tortured interiority. Now, for the first time, there are an array of featured guests: The Weeknd, A$AP Rocky (twice), Playboi Carti, Sean Ono Lennon and Stevie Nicks — all of whose tracks sound like they were more fun to record than listen to and add little to the album but embarrassment.

“Is it the end of an era? Is it the end of America?” Lana asks on “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing.” It is not clear which war she is taking as a model, but the titular motif already showed up in the lead-up to her album release when she debuted another track, “Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind.” In a now-deleted instagram post, Lana digs deep into the well of her positivity and comes up with virtually the same answer she gave her fans and Roger Waters on BDS:

I’m not gonna lie—I had complex feelings about spending the weekend dancing whilst watching tensions w North Korea mount. I find it’s a tightrope between being vigilantly observant of everything going on in the world and also having enough space and time to appreciate God’s good Earth the way it was intended to be appreciated….I just wanted to share this in hopes that one individual’s hope and prayer for peace might contribute to the possibility of it in the long run.

Once again Lana’s commentary on issues outside of the Woodstock in her mind, her private Hollywood Neverland, is limited to trite and feckless sentimentality. What was in reality the death knell for ‘60s radical counterculture is, against the backdrop of her conservative fatalism, itself the most beautiful triumph of aesthetic enjoyment and good intentions. Asked about her previous political apathy, she doesn’t just suggest that the 2016 election and Trump made her rethink the importance of politics in her music, but rather that politics itself simply became more important: “It’s more appropriate now than under the Obama administration, where at least everyone I knew felt safe. It was a good time. We were on the up-and-up.”

Now Lana struggles to reconcile the nationalist and anti-feminist imagery she draws inspiration from with her impression that not everyone she knows feels safe in Trump’s America. As she told Elle, one of the musical highlights of Lust for Life, “God Bless America – And All The Beautiful Women In It,” is a reference to the state of women’s rights under the threat of a Trump administration: “It would be weird to be making a record during the past 18 months and not comment on how [the political landscape] was making me or the people I know feel, which is not good. I wrote God Bless America before the Women’s Marches, but I could tell they were going to happen… I realized a lot of women were nervous about some of the bills that might get passed that would directly affect them.”

The overarching shortcoming both of Lust for Life and of Lana’s newfound interest in politics is that it’s glaringly obvious that she has no skin in the game and nothing but clichés to draw on: The mournful darkness of nostalgia gives way to caricature and sentimentality. She shares the basic assumption of the conservatives and liberals who have united in the #Resistance that the Trump presidency is an aberration and a departure from America’s innocent past.

If Lana Del Rey did a full accounting, she would find that her entire oeuvre is implicated in the outrage, not over Trump and Weinstein, but over the culture and institutions that created them — including the themes and soundscapes that gave her inarguably haunting voice its power and allure. The menacing distance that comes across in Lana’s best work, in both its hip-hop and orchestral pop inflections, comes in part from a sense that the identifications she derives meaning from in life and art are impossible to sustain, because in each case she gladly identifies as the object, not the agent, of whatever arcane myth sustains her.

What allows Lana to surrender her agency to the providence of traditional authority even in the very act of protest is her abstract identification with the mysterious negative, the secondary role carved out for her in a fairy-tale society that exists only in the fantasies of reactionaries. Songs like “Sad Girl” are painful to listen to in part because they speak to a fatalism that transcends mere passivity: “Being a bad bitch on the side, it might not appeal to fools like you / We’ve been around when he gets high, it might not be something you would do / But you haven’t seen my man.”

What Lana has yet to discover is solidarity beyond the shunning of disgraced personalities, beyond the over-identification with the existential embrace of powerlessness that makes “neutrality” in the case of Israeli apartheid seem like a liberal position, and makes a spiritual kumbaya seem like all the action a person who believes in “neutrality” can take. Freud called the energy created by the pleasure instinct, the pro-social instinct, the libido — Lana Del Rey has indulged its counterpart, the lust for death, on far too structural a level to really grasp the inadequacy of her “loving energy” to counteract the material darkness that lurks behind every myth, every great man.

It isn’t that Lana (or Lizzy Grant) was ever a self-identified conservative — her earlier immersion in reactionary nostalgia, and the indifference it engendered, were no less characteristic of millennial liberalism than her post-Trump politicization. Lana’s “Blue Jeans” paints her AWOL lover as a spitting image of James Dean: What could be a more conservative, stereotypically American form of rebellion than a rebel without a cause?

If the new Lana has a cause, it’s clear that it ends with the removal of a despised figurehead and a return to normalcy. While she censors the most explicit line of a song romanticizing domestic violence, far more innocuous lyrics from the bridge speak volumes about what Lana would prefer to do  when faced with radical choices — to return to the neverland of an idyllic America: “We could go back to New York / Loving you was really hard / We could go back to Woodstock / Where they don’t know who we are.”

While Palestine advocates should not waver in their demands on Lana Del Rey, Radiohead, or other artists who have crossed the international picket line, the challenge of appealing to Lana for solidarity is a valuable case study in the ideological obstacles that remain before Americans who think like her are reachable. Deeper than Lana’s statements of concern about the Trump administration is her own reliance on nationalistic and patriarchal imagery that leaves no political avenue for resistance but that of passive, sentimental nostalgia — a Woodstock conservatism that can never go home again.